Mole Valley Poets, 29th July 2013
Tony Marcoff: Tanka

In Japan people write either haiku or tanka and learn about spirituality through writing. Japanese poetry is for all and permeates the culture. For example there are packs of cards where there is a poem on each card and these are used to play a game of snap. Many business cards include poetry.

Tony began the evening with brief notes on Tanka:


Japanese Literary Periods:

  1. Primitive Poetry and the Nara Period (to AD.794)
  2. Heian Period (794-1185)
  3. Kamakura and Muromachi Periods (1185-1603)
  4. Edo Period (1603-1868)
  5. Modern (from 1868)

1. tanka form – five-line stanza of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables.

"Such a tight little form may be thought to be very restrictive. But, in fact, it is one that admits of infinite variations of mood, pace, rhythm and subject matter. Above all, it is musical, and unlike most 17-syllables haiku, its 31 syllables are truly lyrical in the Western sense of the word."

"The haiku strikes a momentary chord. The tanka sings, and leaves a lingering spell".

from A Book of Tanka, James Kirkup (1996)

2. 'A Poetry for Everyone': 1,500 years of poetic tradition, from 5th AD. = adoption of Chinese script by Japanese:

earliest literary effort extant = Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), completed AD. 712:

first great anthology of poetry extant = Manyoshu (Collection of a Myriad Leaves) latter part of 8th century:

first Imperial anthology = Kokinshu (Collection of Poems Ancient and Modem) c. 935 AD.:

tanka = form most common at time of Manvoshu and survives today as

tanka = 'short poem /song'
also called
waka = 'Japanese poem/song'

(from Bownas and Thwaite - 'The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse', Introduction)

3. poetic monument of Heian Period the Kokinshu comprised over 1,100 tanka, with a famous 'Preface' by Ki Tsurayuki which formulated Japan's poetic, the essence and origins of Japanese poetry:-

"Poetry has its seeds in man's heart ... Man's activities are various and whatever they see or hear touches their hearts and is expressed in poetry. When we hear the notes of the nightingale among the blossoms, when we hear the frog in the winter, we know that every living being is capable of song. Poetry, without effort, can touch the gods and spirits ... it turns the hearts of man and woman to each other and it soothes the soul of the fierce warrior ... "

(from 'The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse', Introduction, p. ix.)

4. I have always thought of the tanka as a form of music or song. One has to be aware of how they sound, and so of length. Aya Yuhki's short essay 'Kaze' is about the length of tanka in English. Yuhki suggests these should be about 10 stress counts – roughly 20 English syllables (about 15 words) – because tanka is seen as "fixed form poetry".

5. I recently published the following poem in an attempt to suggest what a haiku is:-

a haiku is
a hand full of water spilling
over into the sea

A haiku is an apercu, or minimalist breath, of beautiful simplicity and brevity and lightness, that radiates with 'the silent allusion of things' the more you consider its clarity, or its distillation of the moment; or it is a stone that drops into still water which becomes still again in a short time, but forever holds the stone.

A tanka has greater range (for me), with more scope for feelings and for discourse: it is the falling water, or the heart of the cascade with its cadences, and it falls into the depths of the sea of life itself - its exuberance and its passion, its dance, its heartaches and its gloom, its hopes, its drama and its music.

– Tony Marcoff

(from 'Blithe Spirit', Journal of the British Haiku Society vol. 14, no 2, June 2004)

Above notes attributed to Tony Marcoff.

Examples of Tanka from the earliest to the present day were read and enjoyed. These included:

The end of my journey
Was still far off,
But in the tree-shade
Of the summer mountain
I stood, my mind floating.

Oshikochi Mitsune

The snowflakes fallen
on the crimson flowers of
the sazanka now
are starting to melt away,
changing to crimson dewdrops.

Ishiguro Seisuke

travelling abroad
have gained
a new-born life –
the everlasting life of the sea

Aya Yushki

On the dawn-reddened
sky they are spreading out,
the singing cranes,
a thousand of the cranes,
and each voice a distinct voice

Taeko Takaori

Where gentle spring winds
scatter pale cherry blossoms
near the pagoda,
on the wings of mourning doves
I shall write my poems.

Yosano Akiko

in my dreams
the ocean is a presence
than knows my name
nightly i go there
to remember who i am

Marjorie A Buettner

midnight pond
between the floating moon
and the soaring one
water lilies

Margarita Engle

lost & forgotten
amongst the grasses
a kettle
slowly wild

Tony Marcoff

olive stones placed
on a white plate edge –
chalk pebbles picked
from the Sussex tide
dry in the sun

Diana Webb

at dawn
seeing the world
as it was
before me

Tony Marcoff